Swedish bass monster Jonas Hellborg burst onto the international scene in the mid 1980s with John McLaughlin’s reconstituted Mahavishnu band, which included drummer Danny Gottlieb, keyboardist Mitch Forman and saxophonist Bill Evans. Following two recordings with that band (1984’s “Mahavishnu” on Warner Bros. and 1986’s “Adventures in Radioland” on Relativity), Hellborg began playing in a more intimate, highly interactive trio setting with McLaughlin and percussion master Trilok Gurtu. Then, in 1988, Hellborg and McLaughlin toured briefly as a duo, providing many sparks as well as moments of intimate, near-telepathic communication along the way. (Sadly, no official recorded document has ever been released of either the McLaughlin-Hellborg-Gurtu trio or the McLaughlin-Hellborg duo).
Since parting ways with McLaughlin in 1989, Hellborg has quietly gone about the business of creating provocative and noteworthy new works for his own independent labels. Under the auspices of Day Eight Music (DEM) he delved into the nuance and rich resonance of his Wechter acoustic bass guitar on 1991’s startling solo bass project, “A Silent Life”, which allowed him to explore to the hilt his inimitable use of chords on the bass, his awesome slap technique (marked by a profusion of thumbed triplets) and his uncannily lyrical single note facility. There followed a rash of similarly ambitious recordings on DEM, including Hellborg’s intimate and alluring duet project with frame drum master Glen Velez (1995’s Ars Moriende), an organ trio outing with fellow Swedes Anders and Jens Johansson (1994’s e) and two thrashing, jam-oriented power trio outings — 1995’s “Abstract Logic” with the late fire-breathing guitar shredder Shawn Lane and drummer Kofi (Ginger’s son) Baker and 1996’s hellacious “Temporal Analogue of Paradise” with guitarist Lane and drummer Apt. Q-258 (aka Jeff Sipe).
After forming his Bardo label in 1997, Hellborg continued the power trio path with Lane and Sipe on “Time Is The Enemy” and the particularly aggressive live offering Personae, which featured some of the most mind-boggling six-string work this side of Allan Holdsworth, Scott Henderson, Eric Johnson and Frank Gambale. That period that Shawn and Sipe and I played together was really fruitful, Jonas recalls. It was less than two years but we did four records during that time.
A decided departure from that blatantly electrified fuzoid path was Hellborg’s zen-like acoustic project “Aram of the Two Rivers” (recorded live in Damascus with a crew of master musicians from Syria and released in 1999) and the mesmerizing “Good People in Times of Evil”, an adventurous East-meets-West hybrid recorded in 2000 which featured Hellborg and guitar partner Lane in the company of master Indian percussionist (and current member of McLaughlin’s Remember Shakti band) Selvaganesh Vinayakram on kanjeera. For me, this fascination with Indian music goes all the way back to when I was a young teenage hippie listening to Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, said Jonas. There’s no question that the more challenging music I’ve ever played is the Indian stuff. And for me it’s South Indian more than North Indian. The South Indian stuff is much more hardcore and raw, which appeals to me.
Hellborg’s “Icon”, released in 2003 on Bardo, was marked by further investigation into the complex Indian rhythms and rags involving some remarkably challenging and precise exchanges between the bassist, guitarist Lane, kanjeera player Selvaganesh and his brothers Umashankar on ghatam and Umamahesh on vocals. It’s another step in the same direction, said Hellborg at the time of the cd’s release. The music is more composed than the previous record. Of course, there is room for stretching out on solos. But all the heads and really intricate time signatures played in unison are all written out in the tradition of Indian drum compositions.
The level of intense interplay and deep groove that the four achieve on Icon ’s four extended tracks is nothing short of breathtaking, particularly on the opening track Anchor, when Selvaganesh and Umashankar launch into their astounding displays of konokol (the traditional rhythmically-disciplined, lightning fast vocal exchanges that sound to American jazz ears like a South Indian version of Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson in a cutting contest). And when Lane’s electric guitar shifts from swirling psychedelia (Anchor) to sustained legato lines reminiscent of violinist L. Shankar (Vehicle) to heavy-duty distortion-laced crunch (Mirror), this East-meets-West hybrid sounds more like Shakti meets Led Zeppelin.
With “Icon”, Hellborg’s longstanding chemistry with Lane, the Memphis-based guitar wiz and former child prodigy, continued to blossom. The thing with Shawn and me is how we can cover so much territory effortlessly…all the different influences from jazz and fusion and Indian music and classical music, said Jonas. And the key to our collaboration is that it doesn’t stop growing. We always work on new ideas and develop stuff and we always feed new influences to each other. Shawn was hugely influenced by meeting and playing with the Indians. And he’s really going places now. What he’s doing with all the Indian articulation and ornamentation on the guitar is absolutely incredible.
That rapid progress was cut short with Lane’s death on September 26, 2003 (at age 40) from pulmonary fibrosis (heart malfunction) which was brought on by his longstanding condition of rheumatoid arthritis. Shortly after Lane’s funeral in Memphis, Hellborg said, I think Shawn was the greatest electric guitar player ever. I think what is the central point in his playing from the beginning, is that he went beyond the clichés, from the first moment. Even when he was with Black Oak Arkansas he was totally into Charlie Parker and Art Tatum, and he applied all that to guitar playing. He would be playing with a rock band and put Art Tatum-styled solos on top of ‘Jim Dandy To The Rescue.’ He was not limited by the physically reality of a guitar at all. Everything was like totally fluid…from his musical ideas to the sound…there was nothing in the way that would actually stop him. And he had a depth and width of musical knowledge that was second to none. He knew about western classical music and classical Indian music and jazz and rock and he could just pick up the guitar and play anything at any point, and he still had a voice. He was not only a supreme emulator of stuff he was into, he had a voice. He really was a phenomenon and he evolved at an incredible pace.
Hellborg last toured with Shawn Lane in February of 2003 when they had a triumphant swing through India. In January of 2004, Jonas participated in a memorial concert for Shawn in Bombay. Last year, he released the DVD “Paris” on Bardo, which captured Jonas and Shawn in a May 2001 concert with the Vinayakram brothers at the New Morning in the City of Lights.
I spoke to Jonas in his favorite meeting place, the Cafe Reggio located just below his New York apartment in the heart of Greenwich Village. The interview took place shortly after an adventurous impromptu gig he played at Tonic with guitarists Henry Kaiser and Dom Minasi and drummer Lukas Lygetti.
BM: This might be a strange place to start but since I’m doing an updated edition of my book on Jaco Pastorius (“JACO: The Extraordinary And Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius”, Backbeat Books), I’d like to get some personal testimony from you. Tell me about your first meeting with Jaco.
JH: It was really interesting. It was in Sweden. I had just gotten the gig with John (in Mahavishnu) and Jaco was playing there with his Word of Mouth sextet with Mike Stern and Kenwood Dennard. Anyway, backstage I was introduced to Jaco and he knew about me already. And it was utter chaos backstage…total lunacy. Everybody was drunk and stoned…total mayhem. But at one point Jaco took me to the side and we went in another room and sat down and boom!…in a second he was totally sane, sober, normal, sharp. And we talked for like an hour about music and bass playing. And he was absolutely sober the whole time. You wouldn’t know that he was crazy Jaco. And he was not the egocentric obnoxious guy that he sometimes appeared to be when he was acting crazy. He was genuine, thoughtful, nice, very friendly. But at the moment he left the room and returned to the other scene, he switched personas again. He was like a showman, like the David Lee Roth of bass playing. It was weird. And that happened a few times. Just about every time I met him he would be acting like a crazy lunatic and then when we talked he would switch into sane mode and would be totally sober and talk intelligently about music. And as soon as we finished our conversation…boom!…he was back into his behavior again. I don’t know what that means.
BM: And you did that one recording with him (1985’s “Down By Law”, which Bill Laswell produced).
JH: Oh, you mean the Deadline thing? No, we never met at that time. We did play on the same track but on different days. We just happened to be on the same record. But we did play once together around that time at a little club called 5&10 No Exaggeration down in SoHo. I was staying around the corner at the time and I just walked by and saw a sign on the door: Tonight! Jaco Pastorius. And I thought, Oh, shit! So I walked in and he recognized me and invited me up to play.
BM: That wasn’t a particularly good period for him….
JH: Oh, I’ll tell you…that night was the best I ever heard him play. He was playing with Delmar and this blind piano player (Mike Gerber). And I’m not sure if I just walked in at the very perfect moment or what, but what he was playing in that moment was beautiful. It was really, really insanely beautiful.
BM: I remember seeing him in those times…he could pull it together every once in a while and surprise everybody with how good he sounded.
JH: Yeah, I think it’s sort of just like getting the chemical balance just right — not too much and not without, then everything works.
BM: Was Jaco someone you admired when you were coming up in Sweden?
JH: I hated him (laughs). No, of course, when he first came out I dug him. He shocked me when I first saw him with Weather Report. He was unbelievably great.
BM: Jaco was such a heavy influence on so many people at that time, almost in a negative sense. But then you came out with a wholly different approach to the bass where you took the chordal approach and explored the whole slapping technique in a deep sense. That was really unprecedented at a time when everybody was playing fretless and trying to sound like Jaco.
JH: Yeah, yeah. I guess I was already formed by the time Jaco was known to me, so it was too late to be that heavily influenced by him. And besides, his playing was so different. I would never think about playing the way he does. And really, the only great lesson to learn from him is you gotta be yourself. You know, he was himself. He came out of that whole r&b experience coming up as a young musician, and he was very honest to who he was as a human being and as a musician and where he came from and what he liked. I think that is a little piece of information and piece of knowledge that you really need to have. It’s what you like. He was totally about what made him feel good. He played the lines that turned him on…it’s that simple. He dug those things he did. And a lot of people seem to be doing stuff they think they are supposed to be playing rather than just unabashedly enjoying themselves while playing. Music is there to be enjoyed, it’s that simple. You don’t have to be pretentious or prestigious about it. It’s not about whether you can play this sort of music or that sort of music in ultra-super speed or whatever. It’s just a matter of…if it feels good, it’s good. And that’s it.
BM: Jaco pretty much played the same way from the time he was a teenager — just refining those same lines, those grooves, that feel. He, of course, had lots of embellishments and expanded on it but the foundation of what he did all through those years was already there when he was a teenager and he kept playing The Chicken and those funk lines right up until the end. But you, on the other hand, keep changing your course radically, it seems. You had a period where you played with a very harsh, distorted sound…your kind of punk phase. Then you got into wholly different vocabularies — the chording thing, the slap thing. And now when I watch the “Paris” DVD or hear those last few records with Shawn and Selvaganesh, you are deeply into a whole different world. It seems like you keep reinventing yourself in a certain way.
JH: Yeah, I think that a big difference is I’m not really into having a career. I make a decent enough living from what I do. I don’t need to be more rich or famous or anything like that. I don’t really feel the need to focus on that, which means that I’m more into just exploring and seeing what comes. I feel like if I do the same thing again I’m wasting my life. I’m like an eternal researcher of music and that’s why I’m moving into different territories all the time. Because I want to explore and I want to get something out of it.
BM: Do you think that your playing was a lot busier when you were younger and first coming up?
JH: Yeah, that’s just a question of maturing. When you’re 20-something, you have something to prove to the world. But when you’re 46, it’s not that important anymore.
BM: Let’s talk about where you’re at now. Obviously, losing Shawn Lane was a devastating blow. How do you rebound from such a huge loss? Where do you go now?
JH: I still don’t know. It’s been a year and I still haven’t sunk into a new project that I really want to pursue with the same kind of depth. I’m trying different things and…I’m not broaching it, actually. It will happen by itself. Right now I don’t have one project that I’m really that intense with or a single direction that I’m pursuing. I have one new project that seems promising, though. I went to Istanbul and played with (pianist) Aydin Essen and (drummer) Gary Husband. Aydin and I had a group together in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with (drummer) Kenwood Dennard. He’s a fabulous player, extraordinary. I have never met a musician with so much musical capacity as he has. I mean, he has perfect pitch and he hears absolutely everything and he can do anything. I think my only comment about him is that he’s got so much that he has a hard time deciding what to do. It’s difficult for people to follow him sometimes because he goes from one territory to the other in just a few seconds. But we are definitely going to be doing some more things together. Meanwhile, Gary and I tried to put together another trio for a gig in India with Allan Holdsworth, but that fell through for some mysterious reason. Anyway, there’s this other guitar player named Steve Topping who is taking his place for that. He’s a really interesting player. I heard some of his music and it really opens up a whole new bunch of possibilities and capacities that probably hasn’t been there with anybody I’ve played with before. Because he’s very well versed in modern classical music, which is something I’m really interested in. Shawn was in one sense, but not so much on a theoretical end as Steve seems to be. So I think this could be interesting and may develop into something. We’re going to go to India and do a tour and see what happens. But there is a possibility for it to be something. There are two things that really interest me with this band. One thing is that because Gary reads well we can actually really play extended composition. That is, we can play pieces that are entirely composed, which is a great thing and not very common with improvisors that you can do that well. And also, I want to develop new formulas of improvisation that are not based on chord structures or modal jams but has more to do with structures of phrases and other basis for composition that is not normally pursued in improvisation. And Steve is familiar with 12-tone music. He’s studied that kind of stuff too. That’s a rare thing to have two people who know that kind of stuff, so we can actually start to implement that Shoenberg type stuff in the context of modern improvisation. When I say this, it might sound like it’s going to be terribly Avant Garde or something…that it’s going to sound like some weird stuff. But that’s not the point. The point is that you are not locked down to very tight, simplistic structural forms like you are when you have a sequence of chords that you’re playing over and that you have to repeat over and over again. That’s a very strict form. Or if you have an open-ended modal form, which is just a head and then free jamming and then a head…that’s also kind like a kind of very dumb, simplistic form. What I’m talking about is where the form is actually structured by everything you’re playing…everything is in relation to the phrase that came before it and it develops in that way. So you can create new forms that are much more interesting. And it sounds like music. It doesn’t have to sound like weird noise that nobody can listen to.
BM: It sounds like fugues, in a certain way.
JH: There you go! That’s a perfect example. Read counterpoint, actually.
BM: I remember at one point a few years ago you were saying that you and Shawn were practicing some Bach pieces that you were planning to record as a duo. Did that ever happen?
JH: We never actually recorded any of it but we did work on it.
BM: Was he well versed in reading?
JH: Shawn couldn’t read, he played strictly by ear. And that is actually what held him back. If he could’ve read, then we could’ve just sat down and played the stuff. But now since Steve does read, it might open up some possibilities that we could do stuff like that.
BM: That gig you played with Henry Kaiser the other night at Tonic…was that just a one-off deal or is that another new project that you’re pursuing?
JH: No, that was strictly an improv thing that he put together. The thing about Henry, I really love who he is, what he does, and that he is. And I admire the balancing power he has on the improvising community in general. He really is that strong kind of magnetic figure that you need for it not to get too bogged down in its own self importance. And you know, I would do stuff with Henry anywhere, anytime. He has the right kind of self distance to what he’s doing. And at the same time, he takes it seriously, which is really great. So if he calls me to do something, I’ll do it…for basically no money. He’s one of the few people I would just go and play with just because I know it’s always going to be interesting.
BM: I thought the music really developed organically over the course of two sets.
JH: Yeah, and for me, even if it hadn’t, it’s still a thing worth pursuing. It’s just a statement being made that it is possible to do stuff without being too preconceived or speculative about it. And I’m really happy about the fact that it was Dom Minasi instead of (U.K. guitarist) Ray Russell, who was originally supposed to be there. Because that would’ve been a much more serious type thing where we would’ve had to play his songs. But the way it turned out it was more like, OK, what can we do? And what does it mean to do this? It was a good night.
BM: We in the audience really got the sense that you were finding the music on the bandstand. And at some point it really gelled and took off collectively. That was interesting to watch.
JH: Exactly. That’s what’s needed more today…people not being too preconceived about what they’re supposed to be.
BM: What other projects are you pursuing?
JH: I’m still working on the classical stuff with traditional Western classical musicians. And that’s been going on now for over ten years. It still hasn’t quite happened the way I want it to happen in order to make it like an official thing and actually record with it.
BM: When you play that music is it strictly an acoustic bass?
JH: Yeah, and I actually just had both of my acoustic instruments fixed up and refurbished, so they’re starting to sound really good now. I’m starting a new series of explorations, particularly with this cello player that I’ve been doing this with for a long time named Felix Fan. He has a festival out in California called Muzik3, where I went to play with Vikku and Shrinivas last summer. It’s a classical music crossover festival that he’s been running for seven years now.
BM: These are bass-cello duets?
JH: We do that but we’re also looking to work with other musicians. And it’s still just experimental. We’re trying to find a platform that works for that.
BM: And that’s a separate vehicle from this stuff you’re talking about doing with Steve Topping?
JH: Yeah, that would be applying classical composition on a fusion trio. This is actually playing with classical musicians but finding a new way of writing and improvising. I did one performance with the group Bang On A Can in California in March, playing a Terry Riley piece, which was kind of interesting to see how that works. I’m thinking about how you can formulate a message for people who don’t improvise to actually improvise, to give them a palette of options to play. And that’s basically what we’re doing right now with Felix…between the two of us, structuring out something that is not a written composition but actually presents these options where you can go here and do this or do that. It’s not like a score that’s written out, it’s just a palette of opportunities and possibilities that can be used.
BM: And you’re still working with Selvaganesh?
JH: Oh yeah, we have a different group which is me, Selva and the sitar player called Niladri Kumar, who is from the same garana as Ravi Shankar. And the interesting thing about Niladri is he plays electric sitar with stomp boxes and different effects. And he plays chords on the sitar. He has classical training. He’s a big star as a classical Indian musician also. His Dad is a big classical sitarist also. But this is something more experimental that we’re doing together.
BM: Given that your nature is exploring and you’re constantly coming up with these new projects, you probably find it preposterous when musicians go back and do retrospectives of their career. You wouldn’t go back and do old material or revisit some situation that you did 15-20 years ago?
JH: Sure I would. And I don’t have a problem with any of that. It’s all valid. We’re all just simple human beings. Again, whatever feels good is right. I don’t have any rules that musicians have to go on and on and on, continually coming up with new stuff. Certainly there are lots of things I would definitely consider doing again. Like one thing that never got recorded and I think it would be great if this could happen would be to do a duet thing with John (McLaughlin) again. Because I think that had a lot of potential. Some concerts were really good and I think at this point we might be able to go somewhere very different with it.
BM: And you didn’t have your acoustic bass guitar before.
JH: That’s one thing. That would add a different texture to it. But also, I’ve been through my own journey now. When I was playing with John, I was very much under his spell. I mean, that was like the only important thing that I had ever done at that point. And I hadn’t really developed my own thing.
BM: Some of the trio stuff was recorded with you and John and Trilok, wasn’t it?
JH: Yeah, but for me that already got locked into a totally different thing. It didn’t have the freedom of just the two. There is always a balance between being a complete ensemble and having the freedom. If you’re alone you can go absolutely anywhere. If you’re two, you can still go a lot of places. If three, you still have possibilities but every person you add kind of locks it down into a certain thing. And with somebody as strong as Trilok in terms of his personality and his concept of playing and everything, it becomes a certain thing that you can’t really escape. And with John, with just the two of us…of course, it was totally dominated by his musical persona but we could go in lots of spaces within what that was, in terms of his history and also other things that he enjoyed playing. For example, we did a lot of Brazilian stuff, which I know John loves. And that has never really come out in a big way. We did a piece by Hermeto Pascoal, and some other beautiful stuff, just beautiful melodies. And sometimes we would just play a beautiful song like that without soloing on it, which is a great idea.
BM: Do you think this will eventually happen, that you and John will get back together at some point?
JH: I have no idea. It could happen. It could also not happen. But talking about things to revisit…yeah, I would definitely do that. I would also go back and do something with Ginger Baker again, absolutely. (They recorded “Middle Passage” in 1990 for the Axiom label and “Unseen Rain” in 1992 for Day Eight Music).
BM: What’s Ginger up to these days?
JH: Oh, the big news is a Cream reunion that’s coming up — one week at the Royal Albert Hall in London as part of Clapton’s 60th birthday celebration.
BM: Can you make an assessment of your own development as a player? How have you evolved as a player? Are you still making discoveries on the instrument? Are you still woodshedding?
JH: Yeah, yeah. You know, it seems like I’m still trying to do the same thing that I did on my first record (“The Bassic Thing” released in 1981 on Day Eight Music). And I probably have gotten a little bit better at it over the years. The sound I’m trying to get is still the sound I was trying to get back then, but I’m a lot closer to it now. You know, I really feel that music being filtered through the instrument or what the instrument allows to come through. I hear a lot of music and I want to play a lot of music but the instrument only allows a certain amount to actually come through because of the physical limitations, and you have to represent it with limited capacities, which is great because it creates something different…something that is not intentional…something that is just the result of the idea and what actually comes out. But I guess it’s like whatever you didn’t intend…it’s the thing where you can’t be the judge of what you are doing. You just do what you do and it comes out and then it’s not yours anymore.
BM: Speaking in technical terms about the bass, you didn’t exactly invent the whole thumb / slap approach, but you certainly took it to a high level. Now people like Victor Wooten and others are being feted for that same technique that you innovated 20 years ago.
JH: Yeah. Well, the funny thing about that was…once the idea was introduced to me, just from hearing it or seeing it, I could do all that. It was not something that I actually practiced a lot or tried to develop. It was just that when I got the idea of, OK, you can play with your thumb…slap and pop and stuff, it was a natural thing for me. I’m sure it was the same thing for Jaco. His style of playing just came naturally to him. That was just the way he played. And for me, that was just the way I played.
BM: The same is true for Shawn Lane. His incredible speed and facility was a natural way of playing for him, from the time that he was a teenager.
JH: Exactly. Immediately. When he started playing the guitar as a kid he played like that. And with his double-jointed fingers he could stretch like nobody else can stretch. His fingers were like rubber, they could go anywhere…it’s just like that. He was a natural. And I also think, again, it’s about honesty. What you do is what you do. And you make the best of that. And basically that’s what I did with that whole slap thing when I started out playing back in the ‘70s.
BM: And now that you have matured into the veteran musician that you are, I get more of a sense of you playing music rather than just playing the bass. And it’s not so much about technique anymore at all.
JH: No, it isn’t. It’s not even about me. The whole thing with Shawn and all those records we did, I was pretty much just a bass player. It was about structuring the music rather than making an impressive statement by myself. If you listen to those things we did with Jeff Sipe, for instance, I was just the spoke that kept everything together. I just made sure that they didn’t drift too far away from where it was supposed to be. Sometimes with them I ‘d play real simple bass lines and just make sure to hold it down, and they would just go absolutely nuts around it. And with the Indians my playing was a bit more involved because with Selvaganesh holding things down, I had the capacity to go places and still keep it together because he is so structured and conscious about where everything is. So my playing was a bit more adventurous in that setting. But yeah, it is definitely about the music as a whole rather than any technical aspects.
BM: By running your own label, you’ve gotten an inside look at just how much the record business is changing. Any thoughts on what the future holds for the industry?
JH: Yes, the business side of music is changing drastically. And it’s really interesting because for me it’s come to a point where a label doesn’t even matter anymore. The whole structure is totally changing and I suspect that when people become more and more used to downloads, when there is a clear format for how that is done, how we actually receive this music and enjoy it and play it, when you have machines that actually play downloads rather than cds, then who knows what that’s going to be? It’s really going to be different. What is a label, anyway? It’s someone that takes care of your production and manufacturing of your output. But once you have tools for doing that as an independent artist, you don’t need a label any more. It just becomes part of the process of what you do…you put together this presentation of your art and then it’s up on the internet and that’s it. You don’t have to go to a pressing plant and make the records, you don’t have to employ people, you don’t have to rent studios anymore. You know. It’s unbelievable. 20 years ago to make a record…to actually just record it and get it on tape would cost you 20-30-40 thousand dollars. Today you buy equipment for like one or two thousand dollars and you can do the whole thing at home yourself.
BM: There’s a new company called DiscLive (www.disclive.com) which records live gigs and makes the music immediately available for downloads after the concert. No discs involved at all.
JH: Exactly. And that is something that struck me also with this whole experience of playing with Shawn. Because everything that we have played live is available somewhere. Every single concert we did can be traced and had somehow. And that sort of puts the importance and significance of records a bit out of the picture. Because every time you play now, it’s a record….a document of what you do. So the actual performance becomes as important as it was when there were no records. You’re going to play and that is your meeting with your audience, and that is what counts. It’s back to that point again. It’s not like where you can go off and play a concert and think, Oh, this is going to be a vanishing point in time. It doesn’t really matter. If it’s not happening, people are going to forget about it. No, it’s not like that anymore. It’s actually the opposite. Everything you do on stage now is as important as when you go into a studio and record for an album. And you don’t have to go into the studio because all those documents exist. So again, it becomes more and more about your actual playing…which is making me feel that the act of making music is more important now than the producing of recorded music. There was a time in my career, after I played with John and started thinking about what I was going to do, when the idea of produced recorded music became the focal point for me. That was really what counted. That was really what people would keep and remember of what you had done in your career. But now it’s back to the point where it’s about what I play live. And it’s about how I prepare when I actually do that concert, because that concert is going to be there forever. That’s just a fact of life now. And it’s a thing of beauty. Because actually if it could really get to the point where I wouldn’t even have to think about the recorded part of it…all I do is I play. That’s the ideal. I’m not my own documentary, if you like. I’m not the record-holder of what I did. I’m just a guy who plays the music. And all the other stuff is automatic. And it will be this way eventually. It’s getting to that point.
BM: But for now you still run a label.
JH: Well, yeah…in a technical sense. We’re still bound by the fact that we need to make a living. The only reason why I need to keep on doing the business…the records, the CDs, the label…is to have a livelihood. But if the whole thing changes, where concerts would pay properly and the documentations of them would just be automatically available anyway, that would be fine with me. I don’t care if I make money on the recorded music. I don’t care where I make money. I kind of like the breakdown of copyrights and property rights. I think it’s an absurdity anyway that somebody can own an idea, or own a piece of music or own a recording. I think it should all be available to everybody all the time. It’s just the fact that the people who make the music, just like everybody else, they need to make a living. So make sure that we’re paid enough for the concerts and then make all the documentation of them available. If people can pay $80 for an Eric Clapton concert, why couldn’t they pay something similar to that for something that we play? Why should a jazz concert be only $10 if people can afford to dish out $80 for a pop concert? You know, it’s just in the structure of the promoters that think they can’t do that. But the people who come to hear our music are really passionate about it. I’m sure they would pay proper money for it. And if that was done, then…you know…spread the music, is what I say. If I would have enough gigs around the year in interesting places and for proper money, I would give away my recorded music. Just put it all on a server for download and everybody can have it. That’s it. But as it is right now, I need to eat every day and I need to pay my rent just like everybody else. So at this point, there’s no other solution to it but to sell CDs.
BM: But things are shifting in this direction to where it might down the road be totally different.
JH: I think so. Absolutely totally different. Because the mindset of kids now is…for them it’s natural to download music for nothing. That’s just part of the culture now. I mean, nobody’s going to convince them about the necessity of intellectual property. Because ingrained in their brain stem is that music is something you get for free on the internet. How you gonna change that? Y ou know, it’s just going to be a bunch of old people trying to keep up ridiculous laws. It’s just like pot smoking. People smoke pot and nobody can really understand why it’s still illegal. It makes no sense anymore, absolutely no sense. But that law is still there and it’s just a bunch of old Christian fundamentalists who say, Oh, that’s bad for you. And it’s the same thing with the music. In time, nobody’s going to understand why there is intellectual property laws anymore. And if you look at that, if you think about the possibility of having all great literature, for instance, available free on the internet for download; if any kid in any poor area of the world can actually download Shakespeare’s entire works or Voltaire or whatever, just imagine what that would do for human culture all over the world! If anybody could download all the great Indian writings over time, that would be wonderful. Money stops people from being educated. It’s there. It’s written. It doesn’t cost anything to put it on the internet. Just put it up, let people have it, let people develop. You know? It’s just becoming more clear that intellectual property and copyright laws are to protect the big companies. It’s not to protect individual artists or composers or innovators of art. It’s part of the system to steal people’s life. You know, don’t pay a composer for the music, make them publish their work instead, and then you can make money on their work. That’s how it was done in the beginning — Beethoven, Mozart…they were all slaves to publishers because that was the only way they could make a living. Instead of having them, you know, being paid for what they actually did. You see? But this whole system is going to change…and sooner than later.
John McLaughlin, Shankar Mahadevan and Zakir Hussain Six years in the making, “Is that So?” is one of John McLaughlin‘s